Remembering Martin McGuinness: A Statesman of the Bogside

Martin McGuinness (left), with Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin

This is a piece I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the death of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s leader in the north and the former Deputy First Minister. I pitched it to a few places, but it never found a home and I didn’t want it to go to waste. Jacobin was one of the places I pitched to, but they ran this brilliant piece by former IRA hunger striker Tommy McKearney (who is obviously much more qualified to speak on this than I am) instead. Anyway, here it is. — OW

When Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander and leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly died on Tuesday, March 21, the lines were drawn and the thinkpieces were rushed out with predictable speed and content. He was a man with a “callous disregard for human life,” “respected on every side by all but a handful of diehards” and he was a “super-terrorist turned super-statesman”.

In all coverage there was the admission, begrudging in some, that McGuinness had been a key player in Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish republican movement, slowly moving away from their philosophy of armalite in one hand and ballot box in the other. McGuinness and SF President Gerry Adams convinced the majority of foot soldiers within the republican movement to put down the armalite and embrace the ballot box. But this turn was presented insidiously by the media, attempting to a toe a line of typical liberal centrism between respect for the dead and disdain for revolutionaries, as a man turning his back on what he had done, suddenly realising that death was a bad thing. Radió Teilifís Éireann, the twenty-six county Republic of Ireland’s state broadcaster, in a video uploaded to Facebook on the day of his death, said that McGuinness had “left his past behind to become one of the major players in Northern Ireland’s peace process.” The idea that McGuinness was leaving his past behind by embracing parliamentary tactics rather than violent ones is both fantasy and a tremendous misreading of Irish history. It was McGuinness past that made him the person he needed to be in order to play such a role in the peace process.

To posit that Martin McGuinness left his past behind him is to posit that there was baggage to leave behind, that there was something shameful in there. McGuinness never felt that way; this is a man who stood before a court in the Republic and declared: “I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann [the IRA] and very, very proud of it.” To say that McGuinness could ever have been ashamed of taking up arms to fight the neo-colonialism and apartheid of the Derry City of his youth, where the Unionist minority of thirty per cent governed the Republican and Nationalist majority by means of gerrymandering, is to perform special kinds of mental gymnastics to ignore everything McGuinness ever said about his time in the IRA as well as the material conditions in which McGuinness was raised.

Having grown up at a time when he and his people were “being treated like second and third class citizens,” he was turned down for a position as a mechanic immediately once the man he had applied to heard his name. The beating of civil rights campaigner and then-socialist republican Gerry Fitt by the baton charge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary shocked the young McGuinness into taking up arms to fight the system that had so constrained the people of his beloved Bogside. The insinuation that IRA membership carries with it some form of automatic shame is to dismiss what northern Republicans and Nationalists like McGuinness had to live through when they were left behind by the Irish Free State in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 that followed six years of on-off war in the forms of the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence. Dominion status was secured by twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties at the negotiating table in Westminster, condemning the other six counties to the oppression and colonialism that survived the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 and leaving them to re-enact the cycle of violence and electioneering that had been so effective in ridding southern Ireland of its colonial masters, eternally banished when the Republic of Ireland was declared in 1949.

There is a mystifying cognitive dissonance in Ireland and its media, where we celebrate the Easter Rising, revolutionaries such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, we don our Repeal jumpers for the fight to legalise abortion, we campaign and succeed in winning the vote to legalise same-sex marriage, but we cannot stand to acknowledge the most explicit and obvious tyranny to happen in Ireland because the majority of people in the Republic are uncomfortable with how those being subjugated reacted. We can celebrate Tone, Emmet, the Fenians, the bourgeois mainstream media can even put James Connolly’s Marxism aside because they did not have to live with the ghosts that haunted their revolutions. Being adjacent to the violence of the Troubles, but only once affected by it — in the 1974 bombings of Dublin and Monaghan carried out by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force — meant that southerners could take a privileged position and sneer at northerners that it was up to them wait their turn for freedom in a way that the Republic never did. To use the much-resorted-to comparison of the IRA and the African National Congress: South Africa’s distance from our shores means that the praise and reverence for Nelson Mandela, who essentially had the exact same trajectory (with more jail time) as McGuinness, was unanimous upon his death but refuse to do it for a man who did it on our own shores.

In his speech to the Assembly the day after McGuinness’ death, Gerry Carroll, the socialist People Before Profit’s only Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), decried the “simplistic narrative of the bad man who went good” that had flooded the media in the immediate aftermath of McGuinness’ death. He was a “product of a discriminatory state, of the decades-long denial of civil rights to Catholics,” as Carroll put it. The real narrative is one that is even simpler than the one the media wished to conjure: Martin McGuinness was a politician borne of oppression.

McGuinness understood that politics was how life in the Bogside had become what it had and he understood that politics was the only way to alleviate the situation in which he and all Republicans and Nationalists lived. He also knew that the kind of revolution needed had never been enacted in Ireland without violence as its catalyst. He studied the nature of Irish revolution — something that is apparently beyond the Irish media — because he was not only a politician, but also a smart one at that. He was a politician when he left the Official IRA for the Provisionals; he was a politician when he stood behind the barricades of Free Derry with a Thompson submachine gun in his hands; he was a politician when he oversaw the assassination Lord Louis Mountbatten; he was a politician when he supported the peace process and IRA disarming; he was a politician when he formed the Chuckle Brothers with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Assembly; he was a politician when he shook hands with Queen Elizabeth and he was a politician when he dissolved the Assembly earlier this year by resigning his position in protest of then-First Minister Arlene Foster’s arrogant refusal to step aside for the duration of an independent investigation into her handling of the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scheme.

“This kind of narrative may make for a good Hollywood film,” is how Carroll described the fallacy being spread in Ireland, Britain and further afield of McGuinness going from bad to good and a Hollywood film narrative is all the liberal media want. They don’t want to acknowledge that 1960’s Derry City was a complex place that they are incapable of comprehending.

McGuinness simply transitioned from the armalite to the combination of armalite and ballot box to finally the ballot box alone; just as James Connolly would have done had he not been strapped to a chair and shot, just as Robert Emmet would have done had he not been hanged, just as Theobald Wolfe Tone would have done had he not slashed his throat in prison.

Speaking to the journalist Eamonn Mallie in 1994, McGuinness himself said it best: “I had a responsibility to fight back against it and I don’t apologise to anybody for having done that.” People who like to ignore the fact that the republicans had the lowest percentage of civilian casualties of the three forces — republicans, loyalists and British security forces — in the Troubles like to point the death toll attributed to McGuinness and his comrades. McGuinness was always forthcoming about his regret for the loss of civilian life and had said that he would willingly speak to any truth commission should one be founded, which is not something leaders in loyalist and British security forces have been forthcoming in saying. McGuinness and the Provisionals had that oxymoron of humanity in their violence, a knowledge that they fought to be allowed to live; unlike the loyalist and British forces, who fought to maintain the restrictions placed on the lives of Republicans and Nationalists. Martin McGuiness fought to make sure that nobody in the Bogside would have to grow up as he did — in a house of seven children with no indoor toilet.

When McGuinness died, the people of opposing political parties north and south of Ireland — the Democratic Unionist Party, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil — spoke of the statesman he had become, but they all missed the point. Martin McGuinness did not become a statesman or a politician; he died the same statesman and politician born and moulded in the Bogside, in Free Derry.